In 1662, Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of St Albans, was granted land for residential development on what was then the outskirts of London. He set aside land for the building of a parish church and churchyard on the south side of what is now Piccadilly. Christopher Wren was appointed the architect in 1672 and the church was consecrated on 13 July 1684 by Henry Compton, the Bishop of London. In 1685 the parish of St James was created for the church.
Samuel Clarke was rector from 1709 to 1729 and was one of the leading intellectual figures of eighteenth-century Britain. William Blake was baptised at the church in 1757. Leopold Stokowski was choirmaster from 1902 until 1905 when he left for a similar position in New York.
The church was severely damaged by enemy action in 1940, during the Second World War. Works of restoration were carried out by the architect Sir Albert Richardson. The church’s website carries a detailed history.
Also in 1856, George Augustus Hopley, the Belgian Consul to Charleston South Carolina, in the US, married the French-born Felicite Claudine Rancine on 26 July. (George later died in Paris on 28 May 1859, age 52.)
John Cyril Porte, an aviation pioneer and air racer, married Minnie Miller on 16 August 1916. The ceremony was conducted by John E T Evitt, Curate.
Richard Bright, physician extraordinary to Queen Elizabeth II who gave his name to the disease he discovered
Concerts are regularly held in the church. Concerts have included performances by popular contemporary musicians such as REM, the folk musician Laura Marling as part of her "church tour", as well as the collegiate Indian-American music group Penn Masala.
Outdoor art space
Hauser & Wirth, a contemporary art gallery, is running a programme of outdoor sculpture exhibitions in Southwood Garden in the grounds of the church. The first exhibition is of work by the Swiss sculptor Hans Josephsohn, running from September 2009 to January 2010. Southwood Garden was created in the churchyard by Viscount Southwood after World War II as a garden of remembrance, "to commemorate the courage and fortitude of the people of London," and was opened by Queen Mary in 1946.
Piccadilly Market was established in 1981 and operates six days a week in the courtyard of St James's Church. Mondays: Food Market, 11 am –5 pm. Tuesdays: Antiques and Collectables Market, 10 am – 6 pm. Wednesday - Saturday: Arts and Craft Market, 10 am – 6 pm.
Like many central London churches surrounded by commercial buildings and ever fewer local people, St James’s lost numbers and momentum in the 1960s and 70s. When, in 1980, Donald Reeves was offered the post of rector, the bishop allegedly said "I don’t mind what you do, just keep it open." During that decade and most of the 1990s numbers and activity grew, the clergy and congregation gaining a reputation for being a progressive, liberal and campaigning church. That has continued. The "congregation" rejects that description and prefers "community". It is centred on the Eucharist, the celebration of the principal Christian sacrament. It finds expression in a wide range of interest groups: spiritual explorers, labyrinth walking, Julian prayer meetings, the Vagabonds group (a lively discussion group which takes its name from a William Blake poem and in faithfulness to that text meets in a local alehouse), a LGBT group and many others. The community has actively supported, and supports, the ordination of women to all the orders of the church, the just treatment of asylum seekers and those living in poverty. It celebrates what it regards as the "radical welcome" found in the heart of the Gospels and attested to by the Incarnation.